Thursday, November 30, 2006

On the Task of Preaching

Recently I heard comments second-hand from come of my members that they were not coming to church (or coming regularly) because they “get nothing out of the sermon.” This elicited some discussion in a meeting at the church. I was frustrated because it was impossible to either address or amend something without specifics. What was lacking that caused them to “get nothing out of the sermon”? No one could put their finger on it exactly.

Predictably I went home with a mixture of frustration and self-critical despondency. The only concrete point mentioned was in regard to my delivery, namely that I use a manuscript. Was I too bound to the text making my delivery come off as wooden? Was I failing to make it interesting with nice modern illustrations? Was I too “deep” and losing people? Or was I simply just to general and dry? I don’t know.

Then I ran across a discussion on preaching over on McCain’s blog entitled “True and False Christ.” You should check it out with the comments as well. Interesting piece to make you think. Dr. Schmidt also challenged pastors to get away from the manuscript. However, the discussion wasn’t so much about delivery (that was incidental), it was about the use of Law in preaching today and the danger of antinomianism. I am still processing this, but I am going to take time to read more of Luther's own sermons. I think there is much to be gained from this.

As my bio to the left shows, I have been in the ministry for almost two decades. It is easy to fall into ruts and to perpetuate one’s errors and mistakes without real self-critical examination. Every pastor needs to examine his preaching constantly. Yes, it is tough to do. Our egos do not like this. And it should be noted that not every criticism is valid. Many people love a sermon that simply “tickles their ears,” as the apostle would say. We cannot give into this. Still, is our preaching everything the Gospel demands? Are we working at this task that is supposed to be one of our greatest? This is the ongoing question……

Minor Feast of St. Andrew - Sign of the Approach of Advent



A blessed St. Andrew's Day to all of you! Unfortunately, unless you are Scottish, you may not take much notice of this day (Andrew is traditionally the patron saint of Scotland.) The role this minor feast plays most often is simply as a marker of where to begin the season of Advent. The first Sunday of the new season thus being the one closest to St. Andrew's Day.

However, as the Augsburg Confession reads: "Our churches teach that the history of the saints may be set before us so that we may follow the example of their faith and good works, according to their calling." (AC, XXI, 1 - McCain ed.) As Lutherans we should take notice of all the saints that we might be encouraged by their example, seeing the living Christ working through them.

Andrew has the honor of being the first disciple called by our Lord, and also as being the first missionary (he led his brother Peter to Christ.) In Greek he has been known as protoclete, "first called." A native of Bethsaida, he appears in Holy Scripture with his brothers now living in Capernaum. Andrew was originally a follower of John the Baptist, and thus was one of the first to hear the Agnus Dei: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." With such a clear witness to the Christ, it is no wonder that Andrew was quick to follow him.

By trade, Andrew, with Peter his brother, was a commercial fisherman. Jesus called them with: "Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Although not prominently featured in the Gospels, he does appear after this at the Feeding of the 5,000 and in the Upper Room at Pentecost.

The appointed collect for this minor festival expresses the spirit of Andrew in a simple and straightforward way: "Almighty God, by whose grace the blessed apostle Saint Andrew obeyed the call of your Son Jesus Christ, grant us also to follow him in heart and life...." (LW, 95) The hymn "By All Your Saints in Warfare" also helps us to appreciate his initial witness: "All praise, O Lord, for Andrew, The first to welcome you, Whose witness to his brother Named you Messiah true. May we, with hearts kept open To you throughout the year, Confess to friend and neighbor Your advent ever near." (LW, hymn #193, vs. 5)

May Andrew thus be more than just a marker for Advent. He is the example of all who would willingly follow Christ, not counting the cost, ready also to witness to that Christ to all.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Lord's Supper by Stephenson

I recently returned to a study group in my area after a long hiatus. They are now beginning a study of Dr. John R. Stephenson's book The Lord's Supper in the Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics series (Vol. XII, 1999, 2003). The volumes in this series, which now includes books on Baptism (Scaer), Church and Ministry (Marquart), Eschatology (Stephenson), and Christology (Scaer), are well worth the purchase. The authors are among the truly outstanding in our church today.

While I have just begun my study of Stephenson's book, my comments are only a few. We barely reached the second chapter yesterday. Some notable quotes for me included the following:

Luther (in ref. to Zwingli's teaching on the Supper): "But he [the devil] will keep on and attack still other articles of faith, as he already declares with flashing eyes that baptism, original sin, and Christ are nothing." Also: "Through these fanatics, however, the devil prepares the way for other heretics who will come and say that Christ is nothing and has neither flesh nor divinity, as happened in early Christendom." (11)

"The Reformer noted that, while they differed among themselves over other articles of faith, the ancient Fathers were virtually unanimous in avowing the real presence." (12)

"Zwingli sinned more grievously than the ancient pagans, who oftentimes made false accusations out of ignorance, whereas he from better knowledge derided as cannibalistic rite founded in the upper room." (13)

"...avowal of the real presence is in precipitous decline throughout Western Christendom....a mere thirty-four percent of self-identified Romans Catholics in the United States confess the real presence, while a majority of sixty-three percent deny this article of faith." (15)

"...since liturgical change signals doctrinal crisis, the widespread contemporary renunciation of the historic Divine Service can only work to detach Lutherans even further from biblical doctrine." (15-16)

There are other gems I would love to share with you, if I had more time. I can only recommend that you purchase the book and read it yourself, along with the others in the series! (However, I would not recommend Amazon.com at this time. They were listing it as $92!!!!

Christian Denomination Selector

I discovered the Christian Denomination Selector over on Pr. Peterson's blog (CyberStones), and decided to take it for myself. It asks you a series of questions on doctrine and practice and then ranks a series of denominations that may best suit your confession. My results were:
#1 - LCMS
#2 - ELS
#3 - EO
#4 - RC

It appears that I was virtually the same as Peterson. As he pointed out later in his comments, the weight you attach to the importance of the given question (low, med. high) probably has a lot to do with your eventual results. Someone also noted that such polls reflect what a church body teaches "on paper," or its formal confession, not what is actually practice. True enough. Nevertheless it is nice to see that according to this little poll I'm a fit for where I am.....for now.....I think.....

Take the poll yourself. It takes only a few minutes. Give it a minute to load. The questions will probably appear below your initial screen after all the advertisements. Let me know your results!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Chaplain's Conference in St. Louis

On November 13 & 14 the Missouri Synod sponsored its first ever conference for emergency services chaplains at the Crowne Plaza, west of St. Louis. The 80+ chaplains represented included police (local and state), sheriff dept., FBI, fire, EMS, and other agencies from throughout the US. As soon as I heard about it I signed up, eager to not only be included in something new, but also hoping to make sure that there was representation from more than just one segment of the synod.

I knew going in that no conference would be all that I might hope it to be. Having been to many conferences in synod the last few years, I am getting wearied by the repetition of seemingly endless PowerPoint presentations and video advertisements for synod's programs. But this one seemed different, and having just entered into chaplaincy work in the last three years or so, this seemed a great opportunity to get some much needed training and insight. In some ways it helped. In other ways, as the author of the quote below observed elsewhere, there was part of it that was much the same.

It was interesting to read the perspective of another chaplain who was there, who I greatly respect (Chaplain to the World). In part he observed: "As I was leaving, one of the organizers asked me what we could do to make next year's conference better. I said, 'focus exclusively on theology.'

We were treated to a long dissertation on being compassionate and merciful, replete with Bible verses and Confessional citations. We heard much about psychology and building relationships, but even the pagans know these things.

While it was assumed that we needed to be heartily admonished in these above matters, it apparently occurred to no one to preach the Gospel to the chaplains present, in order that they might be strengthened. Or to encourage us to be faithful to our Lord and our Confession of Him in this work, which is replete with temptation to be otherwise. I cannot recall a single mention of sin, or about the cross, the resurrection, prayer or the sacraments. Or about how these are implemented in our work as emergency chaplains."

He has a good point. It was light on theology, now that I think about it. And admittedly it would have been nice to be guided more on how one could carry out a distinctly “Lutheran chaplaincy." How does one carry out the work of a chaplain within the government structures and still maintain a distinctly Christian presence? How does one keep one's focus on the Gospel and not get carried away with the temptation to be a 'resident counselor' leaning on the psychologcial tools of the world and neglecting the priceless treasures our Lord has entrusted to us? These should be explored further and treated more thoroughly in the future.

However, I did think that Rev. Matt Harrison, executive director of the Board for Human Care, had a good presentation on the Theology of Mercy. The booklet bearing this title is available from LCMS Board of Human Care and World Relief along with many other great titles, some of them translations of Lutheran fathers on the subject of mercy. It would be worth your time to check it out.

For a newbie in chaplaincy work this was a unique opportunity to rub shoulders with other chaplains and possibly form new friendships and renew old ones among men of similar convictions. I am hoping that there will be another conference. And with the chaplain mentioned before, I do hope there is more theology at a future conference. I’m willing to give them another chance.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Discipline and the Church

Recently in the Baptist Press (Oct. 27, 2006), Gregory Wills compared the seeming paucity of church discipline in his denomination to the "canary in the coal mine." By this reference he was intending to indicate that the lack of discipline of erring Baptists is a sign of its virtual death as a church.

Certainly those of us in the LCMS would agree with Mr. Wills that there is a corresponding paucity of churchly discipline within our own ranks as well. As a parish pastor living and working on the rough edge of ministry, I would freely admit to the frustration of unaddressed and ignored sin within the parish. It is no mystery that many who come to the Table on the Lord's Day may be in true danger of not having adequately examined themselves and may thus be eating and drinking to their own judgment. I believe that while we have been strong in defending the fellowship of the altar as to doctrinal unity, the integrity of Christian practice is an area truly lacking in pastoral attention. And...I count myself truly guilty on the last account.

But, can we say that the lack of such discipline is the "canary in the coal mine" for the church? That where it is lacking, or heaven forbid is absent altogether, the church must cease to exist as the church? I think that on this count we find a noticeable difference between the Reformed and Lutheran way of viewing the church. The "marks" of the church, as Lutherans will well attest, is the Gospel proclaimed and the sacraments faithfully administered. Where these are absent there can be no church. But what of church discipline? Lutherans encourage this discipline and value it highly. However, the successful carrying out of this discipline is not strictly a "mark" of the church's existence.

As a pastor the area of discipline continues to be a source of great angst for me. I know that the Law must be firmly preached to those who are living in a sinful state. I also know that willful lack of repentance must be dealt with for the sake of the sinner's eternal welfare. Yet on this "rough edge" of ministry the application of the Law is often never what it should be. Lack of courage, a desire to please and be accepted, a need to avoid confrontation, and many more reasons could be listed to explain why a pastor would shun the full application of the Law, especially in individual cases apart from the pulpit. I myself find a need to constantly repent of my failure as a Seelsorger in this area.

But thanks be to God that my failures and the failures of my people do not "make or break" the church! For we know that the very gates of hell cannot prevail against it according to our Lord's own word. So, I will continue to preach and teach and pray for courage to do what I am called to do. May the Lord forgive my sins of omission and strengthen me in my sacred calling.

An Introduction

I originally tried my hand at blogging with an account at lutheransonline.com, a server hosted by Thrivent. While truly user-friendly, it was a bit heavy on advertisements, and this format appealed to me more. The articles I wished to share are still at www.lutheransonline.com/studentoftheword, if you wish to check it out.

As I enjoy writing and sharing my thoughts, it seemed natural to enter again into the world of blogging. I write as a Lutheran pastor, sharing concerns about my church and the world in which I live. Hopefully my ruminations there recorded will be helpful to others.

It will take a while to become disciplined in writing, so I hope that in time this will become a truly active blog.

To all who stumble hereupon - The Lord be with you!